William Kunstler dies lawyer for unpopular causes

September 05, 1995|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- William M. Kunstler, the gravel-voiced radical lawyer whose wild hair seemed to symbolize his distrust of government and his kinship with unpopular people and causes, died yesterday. He was 76 and lived in New York City.

Mr. Kunstler died of heart failure at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City after a short illness, said his law partner, Ron Kuby. Mr. Kunstler had a pacemaker implanted Aug. 7 and had been hospitalized since Aug. 28.

Mr. Kunstler's championing of left-of-center causes dated from the early days of the civil rights movement and spanned the bitterest days of the Vietnam War. One of his early clients was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

At the time of his death, he had a role in the defense of the suspects in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center -- part of his lifetime pattern of representing people and movements that were disliked, even despised.

Admirers saw him as a brilliant lawyer, and a skillful and courageous litigator, while his critics saw him as a showoff and publicity-seeker. Nor did he entirely disagree with his detractors.

"To some extent, that has the ring of truth," he once said. "I enjoy the spotlight, as most humans do, but it's not my whole raison d'etre. My purpose is to keep the state from becoming all-domineering, all powerful."

Perhaps his best-known case was that of the Chicago Seven, who were tried on charges that they conspired to incite riots that made a tumult of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

His clients in the trial before Judge Julius J. Hoffman were people whose names were constantly linked to the turbulence of that era: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, David Dellinger, John R. Froines and Lee Weiner. The Black Panther Bobby Seale was originally included but his case was separated from the others, leaving the seven.

Mr. Kunstler complained constantly that Judge Hoffman favored the prosecution in his rulings. At one point, Mr. Kunstler boasted that his own entry in "Who's Who" was three lines longer than the judge's.

"I hope you get a better obituary," Judge Hoffman shot back, lamenting that such exchanges were not consistent with the dignity that ought to prevail in the courtroom.

The defendants were acquitted of conspiracy, although five were found guilty of crossing state lines with intent to riot. His many sharp exchanges with Judge Hoffman brought Mr. Kunstler a contempt-of-court sentence of 4 years, 13 days.

But all convictions, including Mr. Kunstler's, were overturned on appeal, and he spent no time in jail.

Mr. Kunstler's other clients included Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; Wayne Williams, ultimately convicted of killing a number of children in Atlanta; actress Joey Heatherton, who was charged with attacking a passport clerk; Darryl Cabey, one of four black youths wounded by subway gunman Bernhard Goetz in 1984; the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a comrade-in-protest from the Vietnam years; Joseph Bonnano, a reputed mobster; and Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the "black power" rallying cry.

In the aftermath of the 1971 rebellion at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York in which more than 40 convicts and corrections officers were killed, Mr. Kunstler helped to defend prisoners charged.

William Moses Kunstler was born July 7, 1919, in New York to Monroe Bradford Kunstler, a doctor, and the former Frances Mandelbaum, whose father had been a prominent doctor. He majored in French at Yale University, where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa. He graduated in 1941.

He served with the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific in World War II, rising to the rank of major and earning a Bronze Star. After the war, he attended Columbia Law School, graduating in 1949.

But in the mid-1950s, he represented a State Department employee whose passport had been confiscated when he traveled to China as a free-lance reporter. By the early 1960s, he was doing work with the American Civil Liberties Union and representing Dr. King and his allies.

One of his notable victories of recent years was winning acquittal of El Sayyid Nosair on murder charges in the 1990 death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, despite eyewitnesses who said they had seen the defendant slay the militant Jewish leader. Nosair was convicted of gun possession and other lesser charges.

Mr. Kunstler wrote several books, including "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?: The Original Trial of Caryl Chessman," a 1961 account of a California convict executed after more than a decade on death row.

Mr. Kunstler married Lotte Rosenberger in 1943. They were divorced in 1976. That year, he married Margaret L. Ratner, who survives him. Surviving also are two daughters by his first marriage, Karin Goldman of New York and Jan Drazek of Wichita, Kan., and two by his second marriage, Sarah and Emily, both of New York; a sister, Mary Horn of Baltimore, and four grandchildren.

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